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Kings have interesting, some might say colorful history

The original Kings, an NHL expansion team in 1967, had a zany cast, including owner Jack Kent Cooke, who bestowed nicknames and 'Forum Blue and Gold' uniforms but skimped on some basics, like pucks.

May 27, 2012|By Chris Foster
  • Kings goaltender Terry Sawchuk moves into position to make a save during a game against the Minnesota North Stars at the Forum in 1967.
Kings goaltender Terry Sawchuk moves into position to make a save during… (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images )

The Kings arrived in Los Angeles for the first time in October 1967, the day after their last preseason game.

Team announcer Jiggs McDonald, following owner Jack Kent Cooke’s orders, had spent the previous afternoon scouring St. Louis for props — a Stetson for “Cowboy” Bill Flett, a Native American headdress for “Chief” Bryan Campbell and a beret for Real “Frenchy” Lemieux.

The Inglewood High School band played. Players were introduced. The team was whisked away to a hotel and then toddled off to the Long Beach Arena for practice.

Everything went as planned . . . except . . .

“All the pucks were in storage and everything else was stacked on top of them,” McDonald said. “No one could get to them.”

It became a Hollywood story.

Saul Ilson, producer of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” was at practice and remembered the puck given to him by Montreal Canadiens legend Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion.

“I called my office and told my assistant, ‘Bring that puck to Long Beach,’” Ilson said. “They went through practice with one puck. It would go into the seats and someone would go get it. It was kind of weird.”

This is where the rubber met the ice for NHL hockey out west.

The Kings are four victories from taking home the Stanley Cup, but their journey kicked off as one of the six expansion teams in 1967-68. The initial season began without a puck and ended with too many in their own net — a 9-4 loss to the Minnesota North Stars in the playoffs.

“The way I feel, I’m one of the seeds planted in California by the NHL,” said Bob Wall, the Kings’ first captain.

The owner

Cooke was smart, manipulative and demanding.

McDonald said when Cooke went east to arrange financing for the Forum, “The bank president arranged a dinner. Jack asked what was being served and then told him, ‘I’m not going to enjoy that.’ They stopped the limo at a store and he bought a package of wieners. Jack loved hot dogs.”

Cooke, a Canadian who bought the Lakers in 1965, won the NHL franchise by outbidding the Coliseum Commission. That left scars, and when Cooke grew frustrated wrangling over use of the Sports Arena, he decided to build the Forum.

Only, “You didn’t call it the Forum, you called it the ‘Fabulous Forum,’” former Kings forward Doug Robinson said. “The team colors weren’t purple and yellow, they were ‘Forum Blue’ and ‘Forum Gold.’”

Cooke, a former encyclopedia salesman who died in 1997 at age 84, believed in such branding. Every player had to have a nickname.

“He felt it had more recall value,” McDonald said.

Cowboy Flett, Chief Campbell, Frenchy Lemieux, those stuck. Eddie Joyal became Eddie “The Jet” Joyal, and Cooke took that even further. He insisted that Joyal have little jets on his skates during warmups.

“Eddie wasn’t going for that,” McDonald said. “They were gone three spins around the ice.”

Cooke set out to woo Hollywood, and celebrities and starlets often were spotted at his table in the Forum Club.

“If we won, Mr. Cooke would bring Walter Matthau or Jack Lemmon into the locker room,” Wall said. “If we didn’t, it was just him.”

As for money, “I never knew Jack to have more than $5 on him,” McDonald said.

Cooke had a lot more and wasn’t easily parted from it. Flett wanted to buy a house and went to ask about his future with the team.

“Bill came back and said, ‘I was told it was OK as long as the house was on wheels,’” Wall said.

There was nothing Cooke didn’t try to control.

McDonald said he once was “summoned” to Cooke’s office before a game and told to tout “a certain player as having the game of his life. Turned out, Jack was trying to trade the guy. He knew [Chicago Blackhawks owner] Bill Wirtz was driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles that night and would be listening.”

McDonald did as ordered.

“The guy played three shifts, but if you were listening, they were hall-of-fame shifts,” McDonald said.

The players

Wall, a defenseman who at the time was Detroit Red Wings property, learned he had become a King by reading it in the Toronto Star. Nevertheless, he was excited to be taken in the expansion draft.

He just had no idea about the cast he was joining.

“The first training camp, there were 80 guys there, some with rusty skate blades,” former Kings forward Ted Irvine said.

The conditions in Barrie, Ontario, were . . . uh, interesting.

“The hotel had a rope in the room,” Irvine said. “That was the fire escape.”

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